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  • The Encroachment on Highbury:Ireland in Jane Austen's Emma
  • Julie Donovan (bio)

Jane Austen's Emma (1815) is remarkable for its narrative stealth. While readers are beckoned down enticingly intricate paths, they miss important details accumulating in almost imperceptible degrees. By the conclusion of the novel we might well be compelled, in the words of Tara Ghoshal Wallace, "to feel very much like inept readers."1 Intrinsic to such ineptitude and vital to Austen's plotting in Emma is Ireland. In one sense Ireland remains at the periphery of gossip and conversation in the novel, a remote locale forming a barely discernible presence in Highbury happenings. However, and as this essay argues, Ireland's marginality in Emma is deceptive. Ireland becomes crucial to a conundrum Emma's eponymous heroine (and most readers on their first encounter with the text) fails to comprehend. Emma Woodhouse imagines that Jane Fairfax does not go to Ireland because she is besotted with Mr. Dixon, when the actual reason is that she wants to remain with Frank Churchill, to whom she is secretly engaged. Emma misreads Ireland, using it as a site for Jane's affections, which are in fact tied to the more domestic scene in Highbury.

As Ireland shapes Emma's misconceptions, it is absent yet present, disregarded yet overregarded, innocuous yet insidious. Ignorance about Ireland causes disorder in Highbury's verdant enclave, as Emma becomes both dupe and decoy while Frank Churchill exploits Ireland as a convenient offshore island to help him evade detection at home. Ireland encroaches on Highbury as a contradictory presence, invoked in pointed and obtrusive allusions, yet also glided over in moments of ellipsis and oblivion. Subtle references to Ireland form a pattern that should influence our overall reading of Austen's novel, in particular the way the narrative prompts a reconsideration of the relationship between periphery and center and how it satirizes fallible motives behind declarations of truth. As Ireland encroaches upon Highbury, Emma raises questions about post–Act of Union attitudes dismissing Ireland as a colonial hinterland rather [End Page 13] than part of a newly United Kingdom; it also speaks to Austen's Anglo-Irish and Irish influences. In its focus on how we can better read the Irish references in Emma, this article seeks to extend current scholarship, which has tended to keep the significance of Ireland at bay.

Walter Scott's well-known and, in 1815, anonymously authored summation of Emma in the Quarterly Review commended Austen's work as a new mode of novel, distinguishing her realism from Maria Edgeworth's (and implicitly his) more sweeping and romantic examinations of national identity.2 Scott emphasizes Austen's depiction of English life as distilled and domestically delineated, a method she herself described as "my own style" in a letter to James Stanier Clarke dated April 1, 1816. Responding to Stanier's advice on what to put in a novel (little did he know to whom he was speaking), Austen maintained that her creative material was not the stuff of heady historical romance but rather the depiction of "domestic life in country villages."3 Sharing Scott's contemporary estimation, the British Critic emphasized Emma's domestically controlled setting: "In few novels is the unity of place preserved. … The author of Emma never gets beyond the boundaries of two private families."4 The notion of Austen's limited geography has persisted in more modern estimations of her work. In Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900, Franco Moretti finds in Austen "no Ireland … only England: a much smaller space than the United Kingdom as a whole" and, aided by a map, marks points of "narrative complications" in Austen's work—all in England.5 Claire Lamont contends that Emma is "the most consciously English of Austen's novels," echoing Lionel Trilling's observation that Emma indicates a "tendency to conceive of a specifically English ideal of life," belonging, in part, to the "pastoral idyll."6 Yet, while Emma is undoubtedly a domestic English novel, it is also a novel where there are integral narrative complications heading in from the west, too, as Ireland inveigles itself into Highbury's realm, appearing not with the thunderous...


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